MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
More than 100 Americans die from drug overdose every day as a result of the ongoing opioid epidemic. This is according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those who survive an overdose, you might think being hospitalized with an addiction would be the first step towards getting enrolled in a lifesaving treatment plan. A study out today finds that doesn't happen most of the time. From member station WBUR in Boston, Martha Bebinger reports.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Dr. Marc LaRochelle's team reviewed records from more than 17,000 Massachusetts residents who were brought back to life after an opioid overdose - some here at Boston Medical Center.
MARC LAROCHELLE: What we were interested in looking at was who got medication afterward, and then we wanted to see if that medication was effective for reducing harms.
BEBINGER: In LaRochelle's study, patients who started buprenorphine, brand name Suboxone or methadone after an overdose cut their chance of death within a year by half. Few got that choice.
LAROCHELLE: The stunning finding here is that only 3 in 10 are getting those medications after overdose.
BEBINGER: LaRochelle says that's unacceptably low.
LAROCHELLE: The mortality reduction we see with these drugs is similar to giving someone who suffers a heart attack aspirin. It's one of the most effective treatments we have in medicine.
BEBINGER: But there's a big difference.
LAROCHELLE: Ninety-eight percent of people in this country get aspirin for a heart attack.
BEBINGER: To understand why so few get methadone or Suboxone, I walk across the street from the hospital - past two men exchanging crumpled bills for two blue tablets, past a bloodied syringe - to Scott. We're only using first names for people who may still be buying illegal drugs.
SCOTT: I've overdosed maybe three or four times.
BEBINGER: Scott was not offered a medication until after his third overdose.
SCOTT: The problem is a lot of these doctors don't want to prescribe anything like that after a person has an overdose because they feel like they're going to have an overdose again, or they'll abuse the medicine.
BEBINGER: Which, Scott admits, he did. Here's the deal. Suboxone and methadone are both opioid-based medications. Taken as directed, they block cravings for something stronger without making the patient high. But with Suboxone...
SCOTT: A lot of people that get prescribed it take a lot more than they're supposed to and that gives you a high, or they sell them to get money.
BEBINGER: That's not so easy to do with methadone, which is more tightly controlled. Those tight controls are effective but demeaning, says Aubri, a woman who's just come from a methadone clinic around the corner.
AUBRI: It feels like a jail. There's literal bars across the gates, you know, that don't open up until a certain time. There's, like, security guards. No one wants to be there. The only reason people go is because they need it.
BEBINGER: Many opioid addiction patients say that doctors and hospitals just don't want to help.
DEANA: They treat us like crap. We aren't like this, like, because we're bad people, you know, like...
BEBINGER: Deana leans into her husband Phill. He goes to a clinic for the homeless on this block that offers Suboxone.
PHILL: They give you that sense of hope that I can live a drug-free life. I don't have to use.
BEBINGER: One caution about this study - lead author Dr. LaRochelle warns that while giving just 30 percent of overdose patients a lifesaving treatment is not good enough, the situation is likely worse in many states with lower insurance and Medicaid coverage rates than Massachusetts where 97 percent of residents are insured. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.
KELLY: And that story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "ORIGIN OF MAN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.